This Tuesday, Amazon founder and the richest man on the planet, Jeff Bezos, entered space for the first time. This was the virgin flight for Blue Origin, the space travel company that Bezos founded, and lasted 10 minutes and 10 seconds.
Bezos’s trip came just days after billionaire Richard Branson reached the edge of space on board his Virgin Galactic rocket plane. The company currently has more than 600 reservations, a trip that costs his commercial passengers, $250,000 apiece. The company hopes to launch to the public next year.
While the White House called Bezos’s flight a “moment of American exceptionalism,” others have been less than thrilled to see the wealthiest in the country head into the heavens.
“Watching the coverage of the billionaires going to space and the notion that it may pave the way for all of us to go in the future. Can I just ask why they think everyone would want to go to space for 8 minutes? And how is this a good use of millions of $? How bout curing cancer?,” wrote former World Vision head Richard Stearns in a series of tweets. “It is estimated that Bezos spent $5.5 billion to achieve his space flight. That same amount of money could have brought clean water to 110 million people who currently have no access. It could also have given a $4000 raise to every one of Amazon’s 1.3mm employees.”
After his flight, Bezos thanked “every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer. Because you guys paid for all this.” Bezos says he funds Blue Origin by selling $1 billion of Amazon stock annually.
Mark J. Shelhamer is former chief scientist of NASA’s Human Research Program. He is professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery, at Johns Hopkins University, where he is also director of the Human Spaceflight Lab. He most recently also became the director and founder of the Bioastronautics@Hopkins initiative. Shelhamer has been involved in human spaceflight research since the 1980s and serves as an adviser to commercial spaceflight federation.
Shelhamer joined global media manager Morgan Lee and executive editor Ted Olsen to discuss whether Christians should celebrate billionaires in space, why not everyone was a fan of spaceflight when it first took off, and and how working in this industry has affected his relationship with God.
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The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #274
Help us understand a little bit historically, how controversial was the expense of human space flight in general in the fifties and sixties; was there so much enthusiasm or there wasn’t much of a debate?
Mark Shelhamer: Human flight has been going on as a government program in the United States, then the Soviet Union in Russia, now China for quite a long time and there is a tendency to romanticize a lot of this and say that back in the good old days, the Apollo program, the early days of the American space program in the sixties, maybe early seventies were all united. There wasn't all this agonizing and questioning, but that’s not true to a great extent. There was a lot of concern, this was a cold war effort. President Kennedy's speeches on the matter are very inspiring and very compelling. They kind of skirt around the issue of it being a cold war battle.
But referring to the Soviet Union putting a man in space, he does say in one of his speeches that the recent events in space have made an impact on those who are trying to decide as to which path to follow. He is talking about non-aligned nations, figuring out whether they should align themselves with the Soviet Union and communism or the American system and democracy.
So that's what he's talking about in that case. He couched it to some extent in cold war terms, that was very much what drove the early astronauts, especially people like Frank Borman, who listened to some of the things he had to say back then about the science part of the Apollo program.
That's not why he was there. He was there to fight a cold war battle. And if you're fighting a cold war battle on a world stage like that, the expense is not a consideration. It was an expensive operation, no doubt about that. The Apollo program was taking at its peak, which did not last long, about 4% of the federal budget.
These days it's more like 0.4% of the federal budget is taken by NASA. A lot of misconceptions on that basis. But even when Kennedy realized how expensive the Apollo program was going to be started to have some misgivings. He was asking his advisors and there's even a speech at the United Nations that he gave about backpedaling a little bit and trying to call to cooperate with the Soviet Union rather than compete with the Soviet Union because it's possible that neither of our nations can afford to do this. There's also a recording available where he had a talk with James Webb, who was the NASA administrator at the time where he was saying “I'm not that interested in space. Are there thingsthat we can cut back from the NASA initiative that aren't directly relevant to sending people to the moon? Because that's really what we're in this forest to win that particular battle of the cold war.” To his credit, James Webb said, “No, sir, Mr. President, this is our opportunity to build a space flight infrastructure in this country that will serve us for decades to come.”
Even Kennedy who started this whole thing in the United States was having second thoughts about the cost and there were going to be 20 Apollo missions to land on the moon, they stopped at Apollo 17. They were cut out because of probably a number of things; those missions were incredibly dangerous, incredibly risky. You can read the mission reports they're freely available. Every one of those flights was skirting disaster. NASA wanted to quit while they were ahead, but they were also incredibly expensive and Congress just wasn't on board anymore for more moon landings after they did 6.
We talked about the cost associated with it. Was there this concern in that early space flight program, just in terms of public opinion was there a concern about arrogance and pride associated with space flight?
Mark Shelhamer: Yeah, there was and there have been books written about this that have explored that It's an intriguing question. It strikes me, it strikes me as either being incredibly profound or, or incredibly misplaced.
That argument about basically humanity’s hubris, you can apply that to anything, and it has been applied to almost any technical or scientific accomplishment that people think we're getting into God's domain; we have no business doing this. It’s another cliche, if God had intended man to fly, He would have given us wings. Well, He gave us the ability to create flying machines so there's a counter-argument. At what point do you want to stop microscopes?
What business do we have peering into the inner workings of the human body? Why not apply the same reasoning to all nonhumans? You can't say unmanned anymore, because then that, is a sexist term, but non-human or untended, sometimes it's called uncrewed space flight, a term, which I don't like for obvious reasons because that means the alternative is crewed space flight, which also has its problems.
Let's just call it non-human space flight. People are fascinated by the Hubble space telescope. The discoveries that are made astronomically are incredible.
But they're on a continuum. They're not different from what we find by sending humans into space. If there's an argument to be made about the hubris of humans, why is that reserved for sending humans into space? Why isn't it more broadly, applied in all of those cases?
Let me answer my own question a little bit. In all of those cases, the bottom line is that all of these ventures are humans’ way of understanding our place in the universe, understanding our place in creation. I find it hard to believe that that is not a worthwhile thing to pursue. That's scientific exploration, that's human exploration. To some extent, we go because we can go, and it will change our perspective on who we are and how we fit into the universe. That at the bottom line is why I think we do this.
Would you say that there are times where exploration can be self-aggrandizing or a misplaced priority? Maybe not a bad one, but the money that it would cost to run, something ends up being money that is diverted from potentially something that should be a more significant priority?
Mark Shelhamer: Yeah. I'm going to say yes. But also no. Absolutely because there's a history of exploration and including science, exploration being turned into exploitation. I'm not a historian except maybe of human space flight, but it's not hard to find examples of that; colonization; a variety of things even more recently, taking the arguments about cloning arguments, about what CRISPR gene editing can do. Those things can be very risky and when they get out of the research discovery phase and start being applied, that's a conversation that should be held more broadly because they have significant implications for all of us.
Of course, there can be self-aggrandizement. Now, the question about using animals in research is very valuable. There are some things that you do not want to try on humans before you've tried them on another living being.
Hypothetically, I'm sure we could find examples where people would take that too far and just do the experiment because it's possible to do it. Having said that; basic science is a very tricky thing and it's something that people generally don't understand who don't have a scientific background or have not been familiar with science.
There is a tremendous number of technological advances that benefit our everyday lives that are the result of a serendipitous finding of somebody, just frankly, screwing around in the laboratory, aiming for something and they find something else, bread mold, and it takes a scientific insight and scientific genius to capitalize on that observation. But it really troubles me, you hear this once in a while from people lamenting how much money is spent on scientific research. Well, not enough is the straight answer, but, if they want to complain about that, they could say, why don't we just spend money on the important research?
We don't know what's going to be important in five or 10 years. So, to some extent research, including the research that comes along with sending people into space, including astronomical observations on that continuum. We don't know where these are going to lead. We don't know what may happen to our change in perspective of humanity when we start sending large numbers of people who do not have rigorous scientific training into space, people who can afford to take the time to enjoy the view, relish the experience, poets, philosophers, what are they going to come back and report to us that people who we’ve sent so far just have not had the time to think about. That's a pretty compelling reason.
Morgan Lee: There's going to be things that we don't even know. We don't know what we don't know that's out there and that those things will change and could benefit our life here on earth but one of the ways that many people would push back specifically when we're thinking of billionaires going into space is that maybe Jeff Bezos's flight and the company that he started are going to do things that positively benefit humanity. But I know something that Jeff Bezos could do right now to improve humanity and that is he could pay his workers more, or Amazon could pay taxes. Do you think that there's a little bit of a different equation when you transition from a government-funded initiative to one that talks about how private individuals are choosing to spend their money and does that complicate how we might think about something like this?
Mark Shelhamer: Yeah, I think that's a legitimate concern. They have created phenomenal businesses that otherwise would not have existed. They created essentially the commercial human space flight industry from nothing in less than 20 years or so.
That's an amazing accomplishment when you consider that it was the domain of national entities and governments for such a long time. It would have been deemed impossible when they first started it. That's not an insignificant accomplishment. To some extent that needs to be separated from the other concerns that you mentioned, it's always possible to find a good way for somebody else to spend his or her money.
You could probably look at the way I spend money, right? This is a dangerous road to go down. I'm not about to cast the first stone in this argument and say the rich people should be spending their money differently. If you knew how I spent some of my discretionary income on my hobbies, I'm not going to call them vices, I'm going to call them hobbies. But anybody could come in and say, you spent X amount of money on this thing, a concert ticket, or a new piece of electronics, which is in my home workshop. You could have given that to X and used that to buy another meal for the underprivileged or whatever.
I could have, but maybe I already give to those causes, and maybe I work extra hours in consulting to make the money specifically, so I have discretionary funds to reward myself for that extra work. Would it be better if I didn't work that hard and didn't make the money at all?
I want to turn the question around and say these billionaires may have some questionable tax practices, but by and large, they made their money in legal business ventures that are above board. They're not criminal enterprises. To that extent, would we be better off if we said, “The world would be better if you weren't so successful and didn't make that money in the first place” and then we wouldn't be having this argument at all, but they made the money from their own efforts? They get to decide how to spend.
Since you've worked on both the NASA side of things and you're advising folks on the private side of things, what are some of the key differences in the questions that you ask when a government agency is sending folks into space and a private company is sending folks into space, do the questions fundamentally change?
Mark Shelhamer: Well, yeah, there is some overlap, but the questions can become broader there. They're not mutually exclusive, NASA has a role to play, and government space programs have a role to play.
They should be doing things that may be too expensive or too risky or too uncertain, or too fundamental scientifically to attract commercial interest. That's always been their role. That was their role in encouraging commercial aviation in the last century, they did it through a large part by sponsoring airmail, and so that is arguably a perfect role for the government because otherwise there was no way for fledgling aircraft companies or airline companies, I guess there were no airline companies, but air transport companies to make money.
So, the government steps in and says, “We'll support. We will make sure that you have at least enough funding because we need airmail delivered”, and this was not a unanimously, accepted idea. You can imagine the arguments at the time, “mail by a horse-drawn carriage and a railroad is good enough. Why do we need air travel?”I can't say that I've seen those arguments, but I can imagine that they would have occurred. Where would we be today? We all benefit from commercial aviation and the fact that it is commercial and there is a profit motive means that the cost has come down and the accessibility has been incredibly broadened.
Almost anybody in this country can afford to take an airplane flight now. That's one of the things that's going to be different about this. NASA’s mandate is not to commercialize. Except through doing the basic research that permits safe space travel, NASA’s mandate is not to send large numbers of people into space. We could argue whether it's worthwhile to send large numbers of people into space, but if they want to go, how could it be a bad thing to provide them with that opportunity? The cost is going to come down. This may look bad now. It may look like this is the domain of a bunch of rich people and how can that possibly be good for us? That's how it starts. Airline travel at first was incredibly expensive. It can only be afforded by the wealthy, the costs will come down to a great extent because the commercial providers, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, SpaceX are pioneering reusable rockets and reusable spacecraft.
The space shuttle was a big step in that direction. It didn't achieve that as well as NASA had hoped, and they still threw away the solid rocket boosters and the external tank. The spacecraft came back, and it needed a lot of refurbishment. But through the desire to make a profit through a commercial interest, these commercial providers are pushing the boundaries to reduce the cost, and eventually, that's going to benefit a lot of people. So, what could possibly be bad about providing anyone who wants to and can afford it, it's still going to be steep, with the opportunity to go into space and experience what astronauts have experienced for decades, the overview effect, the change in perspective that you get from being in space.
Is it correct that astronauts that are being sent up into space these days are actually using SpaceX technology?
Mark Shelhamer: Yes. The Russians had their own system. They use a Soyuz spacecraft, which they'd been using for a long time, very reliable to get cosmonauts to the space station. The Americans were using; until it was retired, the space shuttle. The space shuttle is incredibly expensive, it was something like half a billion dollars per flight of the space shuttle.
NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011 and had to buy tickets on the Soyuz spacecraft from Russia to get our astronauts up to the space station and people lamented the short-sightedness of letting the shuttle go. But we were paying the Russians a lot less than half a billion dollars per flight.
You could argue that that was a wise thing economically to retire the space shuttle, at least for this use, but people criticized NASA for that. Now NASA has contracted with SpaceX and Boeing. Boeing does not have their spacecraft flying yet, but they will soon and under contract to NASA, SpaceX now flies NASA astronauts to the space station.
NASA no longer has to pay for seats on a Soyuz spacecraft from Russia. So, there's a government industry collaboration. We're already going to see the fruits of this in September. September 15th is the presumed launch date.
SpaceX is going to launch the first all commercial crew to lower earth orbit. It's not going to go to the space station. It's going to orbit for three or four days. All four seats of this flight were paid for by an internet billionaire. They're going to be doing medical research on that flight. The arguments start to break down when you look at the details and the people who are going to fly on that flight; two women, it’s no longer purely the domain of rich white men.
In some of these public, private partnerships, different companies are trying to do different things. Some of them are a little bit more focused on delivery vehicles. Some of them are a little more focused on the tourism aspect. Are there significant differences between the Boeing program, the SpaceX program, the Blue Orbit? Help us understand a little bit what's going on in quick and broad strokes with some of these new private companies. Are we talking about three or four companies? How many companies are involved? How big is this world?
Mark Shelhamer: Yeah. You may get the impression from the press coverage that it’s just Bezos, Branson, and Musk, but he's doing something by sending something useful, arguably to the space station under NASA contract, but space and commercial space flight, and not only human but also untended or other forms of space flight, this is a growth industry. This is big and it's going to get bigger, partly because the costs are coming down. The costs are coming down partly because of the increased reusability of the rockets and some of the spacecraft, which NASA had not been able to make significant headway on for a long time, particularly NASA's fault but they're commercial. We talk about NASA, and we talk about government space agencies. Remember NASA contracts out to commercial aerospace companies to build the rockets and the spacecraft. So, it may be government-funded, but to some extent, there's always been commercial vendors and industry presence.
This is partly because NASA is going back to the moon and Mars and the commercial providers are getting headlines. They're making this look feasible. This is realistic. Now it's possible to talk about sending people to the moon and Mars, without people laughing in your face, which they used to do for a long time, and sending normal people into space.
But back to your question, there's a large number of companies that are working on building satellites, what are called Nanosats, or CubeSats, small satellites that you can make relatively cheaply and send a lot of them up. This can wreak havoc with astronomical observations, so I'm not cavalier about the concerns there, but it's going to bring the cost of earth, observation, satellites, and tracking of terrestrial resources and space monitoring for radiation, and a variety of things down. There are a lot of companies working in that general field; there are companies building rockets that you probably have never heard of. There's a company called Made in Space that has a 3d printer and it's called additive manufacturing now, it’s up on the international space station.
This is a commercial venture. There are companies building biomedical sensors for people to take on their private space flights, which have a tremendous number of terrestrial spin-offs. There's a whole slew of companies and a whole bunch of different industries that you might not immediately associate with space flight or human space flight and not all of them are going to survive. There'll be a shakeout there always has been, but many of them are going to survive and thrive.
In terms of the specific companies, there are three major players. There's also a company called the Sierra Nevada, which we don't hear about too much, but they're developing a suborbital spacecraft a little bit more along the lines of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft.
Let me go in order briefly from the ones that have the less ambitious plans to the more ambitious. Virgin Galactic, that's Richard Branson's company, they flew a week and a half or so ago. That's a suborbital mission. The spacecraft is unusual in that it is taken up under the wings of a mothership.
It's not a conventional aircraft by any means, but at least a more standard airplane, and it is dropped, and it lights its rocket and goes up and you're in suborbital space for a few minutes, comes back down, and lands on a runway. So, it is ready to use again, after some inspection and refurbishment.
The plans for Richard Branson are to also send satellites into space with a different company called Virgin Orbit. I don't know that Virgin Galactic has plans to send humans into orbit. They may have plans to scale up their suborbital spacecraft, to permit transcontinental travel via suborbital spacecraft.
The Virgin Galactic spacecraft was launched and landed in the same geographical area. But imagine if it launched from the west coast and landed in Japan in a half hour. That technology could potentially be scaled up to do that. I think that's what Virgin Galactic has their eye on. The next one up would be Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ company. They're the ones who flew just recently and they want to expand their suborbital capability. Their spacecraft is very interesting in that it is more conventional in terms of the history of space travel. It goes up on a more or less conventional rocket.
It's not conventional because it's reusable. You saw that if you watch the coverage. The rocket came back down. They'll refurbish it and use it again. It's not thrown away; the same with the spacecraft, but unlike the Virgin Galactic suborbital spacecraft, the Blue Origin spacecraft called New Shepard after Alan Shepard, the first American in suborbital space. That Blue Origin spacecraft does not have a pilot or a crew, it's completely automated.
It's completely automated because it's a much more conventional flight profile. It goes up, the rocket pulls away, the spacecraft continues up on a ballistic trajectory, starts re-entering the atmosphere, the parachutes pop out, it lands on the ground and there's not much that a pilot could do in that spacecraft.
It's highly automated and there's more room for; frankly paying customers in there. Blue Origin has much broader ambitions. Jeff Bezos has said for a long time that he wants to take humanity and all of its polluting ways off of the surface of the earth and put them into earth orbit and make the earth in some sense a national park.
That's very ambitious, but people like Gerard K O'Neill from Princeton who Jeff Bezos took a course with when he was in college, have been talking about this general idea for decades. So that's his plan if that were ever successful, it would take decades, if not centuries. Nevertheless, that doesn't seem like a necessarily bad thing to do. You have to stop the argument when people say, “that's great for all the people who can afford it.” That cost is going to come down. Only rich people can afford it now because it's only been done twice.
In some sense of specious argument, the costs will come down. The Blue Origin, I believe they're one of the companies that got a contract from NASA to build a Lunar lander, a human Lunar lander for NASA ‘s current plans to send people back to the moon. Blue Origin is flying suborbital, but they also have very ambitious plans for deeper space like the moon. There's SpaceX, which is Elon Musk's. SpaceX has for a while been providing cargo service to the international space station, along with a number of other companies. Other ones send cargo up and they have been doing this for a long time under contract with NASA to send cargo to the space station.
Twice now they have sent astronauts to the space station. They're able to capitalize on that cargo spacecraft capability, make it a human spacecraft, and then since they've done that, they're going to be able to sell those flights. If you thought the suborbital flight was expensive, an orbital flight is tremendously expensive. But at least people are doing it. There's this Inspiration4 flight on a SpaceX spacecraft coming up in September and Elon Musk also has his plans on much bigger things. He says he plans to die on Mars, just not on landing. He plans on dying there as an old man on Mars. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. The thing is we have a commercial for-profit venture that's talking seriously about spend about sending people to Mars. This is new, this has never been possible before realistic and people taking it seriously. That's more than just a sketchy outline of some of the commercial providers.
As we think about the ethics of exploration, the ethics of space as we've talked about, one of the great hopes with the unknown unknowns is there's going to be stuff that we all learn, in human space flight. We're going to learn more about ourselves and more about the physics, discoveries, and things we can make, and things we can do. You're someone who has done a lot of work on the human body risks in space, but are there other risks?
If we're hoping for unexpected discoveries, should we also be concerned about unexpected ethical dilemmas?
Mark Shelhamer: Wow, yes, of course. Whenever some great thing happens that has fantastic advantages and great benefits for humanity, people will never pass up an opportunity to screw it up, look at the internet, look at television.
In all of these cases imagine what people thought this was going to bring to the common individual. That is true, but it's also brought along a lot of less desirable qualities. Exploration can easily be turned into exploitation.
We have to look out for that. That's why conversations like this are so important. There are going to be snake oil salesman and various underhanded ventures that try to capitalize on this. That doesn't mean you don't do it. Somebody is going to do it anyway.
So why not try to make it transparent and do it correctly but let me backtrack and talk about the research aspect of things. These suborbital flights, certainly the orbital ones to come, the inspiration for flight that I mentioned, open up opportunities for research that would never have been available before.
Just as an example and as a researcher, this fascinates me. This does not mean I'm going to give up my NASA-sponsored research. It means I'm going to incorporate the possibilities of commercial flight providers into my research portfolio. As an example, the NASA Flight Opportunities Program right now has a solicitation out, soliciting for grants to do research in the area of technology development, kind of like the R and D type of research on among other things, suborbital flight spacecraft. They're saying, look at the opportunities this has for pushing technologies that might benefit science and technology engineering on earth, and also future space flights. NASA will fund that research, even though it's going to fly on a commercial platform.
I'm submitting a grant proposal to that solicitation. I've been working, as you mentioned at the beginning as an advisor to the Commercial Space Flight Federation for 12 years. Back when we started, we thought these flights were going to be two years away. Now they're actually happening. The possibility that I can fly into space with my own experiment, just like I'm there in the laboratory to watch an experiment that I do and you're the expert in that experiment. Astronauts are amazing people but they're rarely expert scientific experts in the science that they're doing on the space station. There are some exceptions.
Kate Rubins is an exception. She's a biochemist and she does that type of research among others on the space station. But it's unreasonable to expect an astronaut doing a variety of things on a space flight to be an expert on every scientific domain. I'll tell you from my personal experience, I've done a lot of parabolic flights under NASA support.
This is the vomit comet, an aircraft that goes up and flies a parabolic trajectory and you are weightless for about 20, 25 seconds at a time. But it's 30 to 40 times in a row. You can do some good science. There are occasions in which me performing my own experiment as the test subject in a parabolic flight, observed something unexpected, and capitalized on that.
That would not have happened if I were not flying with the experiment. So now I can fly, not just me but almost any investigator who's willing to do it can fly on a suborbital space flight because it's all a lot cheaper than flying to the space station and a lot more accessible. I wanted to make sure that the research aspects of these flights were not lost. One final point I'll make about this, one of the people who flew on the Virgin Galactic flight is Sirisha Bandla. I’ve known Sirisha for quite a while because of our joint work, before she worked for Virgin Galactic, she was like me kind of an advisor to the industry. Part of what she did during the flight was that she took her own initiative and dedicated some of her precious free time in weightlessness, some of the time that she could have used to float around the cabin, enjoy the zero-G experience, which I can tell you is thrilling just from doing it 20 seconds at a time, and looking out the windows, she devoted some of that to a very simple Pathfinder experiment on plant growth in space, which is a scientifically valid thing to do.
This is something that's missed in most of these stories, the very first human suborbital flight that Virgin Galactic did had some scientific research on it.
Would you be able to share how working in the realm of space exploration has uniquely shaped your faith and your perspective of God?
Mark Shelhamer: First of all, it infuses everything that I do, hopefully, it certainly encourages me to do the best science that I can do in the best way, ethically, treat everyone fairly, don't cut corners, but that that's not specifically science. Our faith should inform that no matter what we do, that's biblical. No matter what you do, do it as if you're doing it for the Lord and not for men. That's the way that we should be looking at this. In my particular case, and I know this drives a lot of people in science, the privilege of being able to explore God's creation as a scientist and get frankly insights that I don't think you would otherwise get without a scientific view of it. That doesn't mean everyone's insights are not valuable. That doesn't mean scientists have exclusive rights to awe and wonder, quite the contrary. We have an obligation to share those insights with other people, which by the way, is what I think commercial space flights are going to allow people to do; experience that awe and wonder directly. I would draw on that, it's an honor and a privilege to be able to explore the creation as a scientist.
It's a form of worship.